Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 37: Capitals at Blue Jackets, December 31st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s New Year’s Eve, and we are about to ring out the old year. Can’t say that it has been a great one to be a Washington Capitals fan, not when the high point came on the first night of the year (the 3-1 win over Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic). But here we are ready to toast our hope for health and good fortune for the year to come. It is…

“Why do they sing hockey carols on New Year’s Eve, cuz?”

Cheerless, after locking me in that closet trying to hijack the prognostications…I wouldn’t think you’d want to see me right now.

“C’mon, cuz…we wuz only tryin’ to help, and look… the Caps won, right? You even got the score right.”

Yeah, yeah, ok. Now, what about this “hockey carol” thing?

“Well, why do we sing about a backup goalie and a retired forward on New Year’s Eve?”


“Alex Auld and Robert Lang.”

You mean…


Cheerless, it’s a tune set to an old Scottish poem. I don’t suppose you ever heard of Robert Burns.

“Yeah, he plays for San Jose, right?”

No, that’s Brent Burns. Robert Burns was a Scottish poet, and he wrote the words of “Auld Lang Syne.” It means, “old long since.” Sort of like “long, long ago.”

“In a galaxy far, far away.”

Not exactly.

“I still like to think of it as a hockey carol, cuz.”

You know? You might be on to something there, cousin.

Before we sing the hockey carol at midnight, the Washington Capitals have one more order of business for 2011 – a visit to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets. The Jackets are having a devil of a time trying to find any momentum whatsoever this season. They started the 2011-2012 campaign with eight straight losses (0-7-1) and they lost six in a row (0-5-1) before turning aside the Dallas Stars, 4-1, on Thursday.

In between, Columbus has managed to string together consecutive wins only one this season – a 4-3 overtime win at Nashville on November 19th and a 4-1 win over Calgary on November 21st. Not exactly a season to toast so far. Here is how the teams stack up against one another:

(click ic for larger image)

Clearly, Columbus has not come upon their standings position by fluke or bad luck. That many rankings in the 20’s, they earned it.

1. One bit of good fortune befalling the Blue Jackets is this. They have the fourth largest difference of power play to penalty killing time in the league. Only three teams have more power play time at home (Carolina, Montreal, Buffalo). Given how poorly the Jackets are at 5-on-5 (28th) and penalty killing (29th), the more time they spend with the man advantage is more time they are not likely to give up goals.

2. Columbus actually has a better record when they are outshot by the opposition (5-8-0) than when they outshoot their opponents (5-12-5). This should not be a mystery. Columbus’ 7.55 percent shooting percentage is 28th in the league (by way of comparison, Washington’s shooting percentage of 10.11 percent is seventh).

3. If Columbus is going to win this game, it is likely to be from what they do early. They are only a minus-7 (goals scored to goals allowed) in the first period and minus-3 in the second). They probably will not do it late – they are minus-22 in the third period. More to the point, the Blue Jackets are 8-5-2 when leading after two periods (although that record is worst in the league), 1-11-1 when trailing after 40 minutes.

4. One thing the Blue Jackets to happen to do reasonably well is avoid penalties. Well, some of them. Only four teams have fewer minor penalties taken this season. By the same token, only three teams have taken more majors. Columbus is second in the league in fighting majors with 26 (the Rangers have 31).

5. It might be particularly significant sign of futility that a team could score four power play goals in a game and lose. The Blue Jackets did just that is a 6-5 loss to Nashville on December 22nd. Columbus has recorded multiple power-play goal games three times this season and has yet to win a game in regulation (1-2-0), In addition to the loss to Nashville, Columbus dropped a 6-3 decision to Chicago in which they had two power play goals, and they beat Nashville, 4-3, in overtime when they recorded a pair of power play goals.

1. The Caps have played on New Year’s Eve six times in franchise history. They have a record of 3-3-0 in those games. The last time the Caps played on December 31st, they beat Philadelphia, 4-3, on December 31, 2005, in a trick shot competition, Brian Willsie potting the winner after scoring the tying goal in the third period.

2. The Caps are 17-14-4 in year-ending games over their history, 4-2-0 since the lockout.

3. A win in this game would give the Caps an eight-win December. It would leave this edition of the Caps tied for the second-most wins in the month (with the 2009-2010 team), behind only the 2008-2009 Caps, a team that went 11-3-0 in December 2008.

4. The Caps are tied for the sixth-most number of third period goals this season (42). Given that Columbus has allowed the third-most number of third period goals, this could be a productive 20 minutes for the Caps.

5. Only one team has allowed more power play goals on the road than the Caps. The 17 allowed in 17 road games is surpassed only by Toronto (24 in 20 road games).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Columbus: Steve Mason

Once upon a time, Steve Mason was a goalie on the rise. In his rookie year he was 33-20-7, 2.29, .916, and had ten shutouts. He had a string of three consecutive shutouts, blanking Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Anaheim. He had shutouts in both of his appearances against the Caps. Since then, however, Mason has been more or less solved. In the two-plus seasons following his Calder Trophy-winning season, he is 49-62-18, 3.09, .899, with eight shutouts in 134 appearances. This season he is 5-15-2, 3.29, .887, and is still without a shutout. He ranks 45th among 46 qualifying goalies in goals against average and is tied for 44th in save percentage. In 22 appearances this season he has allowed four or more goals 10 times. He has, however, showed signs of emerging from his long slumber. In his last two starts he stopped a total of 61 of 63 shots in backstopping Columbus to a win over Dallas and a Gimmick loss to Calgary.

Washington: John Carlson

The graduate of the Dale Hunter College of Hockey Knowledge in London has recorded 16 consecutive games of at least 20 minutes of ice time, 14 of those under Hunter. Seven times in those 14 games he finished the game with more than 25 minutes. It does not seem to have overly hampered his production. Carlson is 1-9-10, even, in those 14 games since the coaching change. What he is doing less of, however, is getting shots on goal from the blue line. In his first five games under the new coach Carlson had 18 shots on goal. In his last nine he has a total of five and did not record a shot in five of those nine games. The Caps have gotten contributions from the Young Guns lately, but it would be nice to see Carlson activating a bit more in the offensive end to provide another threat, at least to get shots to the net.


1. Patience. Columbus is not a team that seems to be able to construct full 60-minute efforts. Their third period record is gruesome. If the Caps don’t get them early, they are likely to get their opportunities to get them late.

2. One is the loneliest number. The Caps have seen the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom turn it up a notch as of late. But a one-line team is not a long-term recipe for success. A second line of Jeff Halpern, Troy Brouwer, and Marcus Johansson has to do more than, say, the three shots on goal and no points they recorded in the Buffalo game on Friday. And the third line of Joel Ward, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera has a total of three even-strength goals in their last ten games. Ward has not had a goal of any kind in his last 23 games, dating back to a November 5th game against the Islanders when he had his last one.

3. No celebrating early. This has the daily-double of distractions. It is a game on New Year’s Eve, and it is a game against a struggling opponent. The temptation here is to go the full cute and try for the fancy finish instead of the gritty goal. It’s a road game. Play it like one. Simple, without all the efforts at high-wire pyrotechnics.

In the end, this is one of those games that on paper should be over by the first intermission. But these are the Caps, and they don’t often display that ruthless gene successful teams express against such opponents. It is an especially tricky game in that the Caps: a) beat a team that has beaten them like a drum in the regular season (the Rangers), and b) beat a team that even when depleted handled the Caps rather easily this season in their first two games. This game might seem like a night off. The Caps will think that at their peril. We think they will avoid that fate.

Capitals 4 – Blue Jackets 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 36: Capitals 3 - Sabres 1

Once upon a time, it was Ovi’s world, and we just smiled and watched.

Last night, Caps fans got a glimpse of what that was like once more as Alex Ovechkin potted a pair of goals, Nicklas Backstrom had one of his own, and Tomas Vokoun showed fans why he was such a steal when he was signed as a free agent as the Washington Capitals defeated the Buffalo Sabres, 3-1, at Verizon Center.

OK, so one of Ovechkin’s goals was fluky, but such is the way of all top end performers. The .350 hitter in baseball gets the check-swing single. The 30-point scorer in basketball has the shot go high off the iron and drop in once in a while. The quarterback has his past deflected into the hands of an unintended receiver in the end zone. It happens.

In Ovechkin’s case, it was a harmless enough looking play that got him and the Caps started. With Mike Weber off for boarding 27 seconds into the game and the Caps on a power play, Tomas Vokoun dropped the puck for Ovechkin at the side of the Caps’ net. Ovechkin wheeled around the cage with the puck and headed up the right side. Allowed to build a head of steam as the Sabres were changing personnel on the fly, Ovechkin charged into the Buffalo defensive zone, eluding an attempt at a hip check by Braden McNabb. When Christian Erhoff slid over to try to interrupt Ovechkin’s progress, Ovechkin spotted Brooks Laich steaming down the middle with position on Paul Gaustad. Ovechkin sent a pass to Laich, but the puck clicked off Erhoff’s stick and fluttered past goalie Ryan Miller into the back of the net for Ovechkin’s lucky 13th goal of the season.

Nicklas Backstrom got what would be the game-winner in the second period by closing the deal on an amazing passing sequence. It started with what every coach tears his hair out over – a turnover at the opponent’s blue line. Lindy Ruff was doing the hair pulling when Derek Roy made a lazy pass from the right wing boards in hopes of finding Robyn Regehr at the other end of it. But Alexander Semin intercepted the pass and started the other way:

When Semin reached the red line, he dropped the puck for Alex Ovechkin crossing behind him:

Ovechkin headed into the Buffalo zone with three defenders closing on him:

With the three defenders about to swallow him up, Ovechkin fed Roman Hamrlik on the left side:

With two defenders still marking Ovechkin and Mike Weber sliding over to the puck-carrier, Hamrlik centers the puck to Alexander Semin trailing the play:

Semin one-times the puck to Nicklas Backstrom between the hash marks, and although the Sabre defenders have created what looks like a defensive halo around Backstrom, none are in a position to defend what comes next:

Backstrom flicks the puck past an out-of-position Ryan Miller:

After Jochen Hecht got the Sabres within one before the second intermission, Ovechkin got the insurance goal after the break. It was more spiffy passing, this time an oldie but a goodie. Folks will probably remember the pass from Nicklas Backstrom to Alex Ovechkin for the one-timer that rocketed past a lunging Ryan Miller, and that was sweet. But what set it up might have been sweeter. Dmitry Orlov collected a loose puck at the boards in the Caps end and shuffled it up and out of the zone. When the puck found its way to Alexander Semin at the red line, Semin gently nudged a backhand pass to Backstrom heading the other way, just as Robyn Regehr was about to drill Semin from behind. Semin took the hit, Backstrom took the puck, and the Caps were off and running with Ovechkin sealing the deal on the win.

Other stuff:

-- It was the first time in 27 games that Ovechkin recorded a multi-goal game, the last coming on October 29th against Vancouver. He now has points in his last five games (4-3-7).

-- Nicklas Backstrom just keeps plugging along. His goal and assist makes him 2-4-6 in his last five games and leaves him in a tie for 12th in league scoring (13-25-38). He also wins the coupon for the all-you-can-eat buffet – a goal, an assist, plus-2, three shot attempts, one shot on goal, two takeaways, three blocked shots, and he won 10 of 18 draws.

-- And there is Alexander Semin, who is quietly finding a rhythm in his game. His two assists on the night make him 4-4-8, plus-6 in his last six games. He could have had two assists on the Backstrom goal, getting Ovechkin started with momentum into the Buffalo zone to start things, then setting up Backstrom in the slot for the goal.

-- It was a matter of skill in this one, the Caps taking advantage of opportunities from Sabre defensive breakdowns, just as they took advantage in the game against the Rangers on Wednesday. They managed only 40 shot attempts in 60 minutes, but they did get a good percentage of those attempts on goal (53 percent). And of the eight missed shots the Caps had, Ovechkin had four of them. His nine attempts reflected an increasing willingness to shoot the puck.

-- At the other end, the Caps blocked almost as many shots (23) as the Sabres directed on net (26). Thirteen different skaters recorded at least one blocked shot, led by Karl Alzner with four. But the forwards made their contributions, too. Backstrom had three, Troy Brouwer had three, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera each had a pair.

-- Maybe one of the Caps goalies is grabbing the number one job by the throat. In making 25 saves on 26 shots in the win, Tomas Vokoun has won two in a row (he has not had more consecutive wins since opening the season with six straight victories) and has stopped 72 of the last 75 shots he has faced (.960 save percentage).

In the end, the Caps are now 6-3-1 in their last ten games and have allowed only 22 goals in those games. Since dropping a 5-1 decision to Philadelphia, the Caps have allowed only 12 goals in seven games. And now, the Young Guns are making more consistent contributions with the return of Mike Green on the horizon. The Caps are going to need to get some more out of the third and fourth lines and will need to solve that second line problem. But the best players have to be the best players, too. This week, they have been.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 7: "Deadline Deals"

We covered streaks in the first three installments of the top ten stories for the Washington Capitals this season. Now, we turn to other matters.

February is a nervous month for NHL teams and NHL players. Sure, teams are jockeying for playoff position, but it is also a time of year when some players start to wonder whether they will be in a new city come the new month. February is the month in which the NHL trading deadline takes place, when teams look to find those last pieces to complete a puzzle that bears the image of a Stanley Cup.

February 1, 2011 was the first day of games on the NHL schedule following the All-Star Game break. It was the opening of a four-week window for teams to take a final assessment of their needs and to scout players to solve what problems remained for those teams.

For the Washington Capitals, the needs were hardly news. The Caps had a world-class center for their top line in Nicklas Backstrom, but there was a stunning lack of depth at the position once you got past Backstrom. Marcus Johansson was a rookie and not experienced enough to take on the responsibility night-in and night-out of centering a scoring line. Brooks Laich was more a center in the checking line mold than a playmaker. After that, the pickings got very thin, very fast.

Then there was the defense. Tom Poti – a reliable veteran defenseman – had not played in a game since January 12th (and lasted barely five minutes in that one). Mike Green – arguably the team’s best all-around defenseman and a two-time Norris Trophy finalist – would play in only five games in February leading up to the trading deadline and would be injured in two of them. First, he took a puck to the side of the head on a shot by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik late in the first period of a 3-0 Capitals win on February 6th. He missed the next game, but he returned to the ice and skated 22 minutes in a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles on February 12th. It did not seem to agree with him, though; he missed the next five games from a combination of a concussion and the flu. When he returned once more – three days before the trading deadline – he was driven into the corner boards by the Rangers’ Derek Stepan as New York was completing a scoring play less than six minutes into a 6-0 loss to the Rangers on February 25th. Green did not return (he would not return for the rest of the regular season).

The Caps were left with two clear needs, but as far as the answers there was only one persistent answer being floated in the hockey media. Jason Arnott was mentioned as a “fit” for the Caps, despite his having a no-trade clause attached to his contract with the New Jersey Devils. Arnott, so the idea went, could provide things the Caps didn’t have at the second line center position: size, experience, some scoring punch. The Capitals pulled the trigger on a deal for Arnott, sending David Steckel and a second round pick in 2012 to the Devils for the center.

The matter of a defenseman was murkier. There did not seem to be any obvious available “fits” in the same mold as Jason Arnott at center. But the Caps and General Manager George McPhee do seem to have a sense of dramatic and surprising timing. February’s surprise was snaring Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jake Hauswirth and a third round choice in the 2011 entry draft (that pick turned out to be Jonathan Racine, a defenseman currently playing with Shawinigan in the QMJHL).

The Caps appeared to have plugged two holes in their lineup that had to be plugged if a long playoff run was to be achieved. Both came to the club doing what they were expected to do. Arnott had the more auspicious debut with the Caps, feeding Brooks Laich from behind the New York Islander net to tie their March 1st contest with 48 seconds left in regulation (Alex Ovechkin won the game in overtime with a goal). But Wideman had his contributions too – six shot attempts, three shots on goal, four hits, a pair of blocked shots, and a plus-2 in almost 27 minutes of ice time.

It was that last number as much as anything else that Wideman was brought in to provide. Mike Green had been a minutes-eater for the Caps, and Tom Poti had averaged more than 20 minutes a night for the Caps in his first three full seasons with the club. With John Carlson and Karl Alzner pushing past the 20 minute a night mark with the Green and Poti injuries, bringing a veteran such as Wideman to bear some of the ice time burden lifted some off the youngsters.

Over the remainder of the regular season, though, the paths of Arnott and Wideman diverged. Arnott played in 11 of the Caps’ last 19 games, going 4-3-7, plus-3 in the process. He provided stability and leadership, hardly shy about pointing out things that needed work or areas that needed improvement. He also appeared to develop a chemistry with the enigmatic Alexander Semin, both on the ice and in engaging Semin more than what seemed to be the case from other players not named, “Ovechkin.” What was disappointing was that while he had been a 50-plus percent faceoff man up to his arrival in Washington, he won more than 50 percent of his draws in only three of the 11 games in which he played. And there was also the fact that he played in only those 11 games, missing others due to what was then an “undisclosed” injury.

At least Arnott returned from his injuries. It would not be so for Dennis Wideman. The defenseman appeared in each of the 14 games played by the Caps after his arrival, but there the streak would end. In a March 29th game against Carolina, Wideman collided with Tuomo Ruutu of the Hurricanes in open ice. It was the kind of hit you could see often in a game, the sort that might result in a bruise, but nothing more. Unfortunately, it was much more. Wideman was diagnosed with compartment syndrome and a leg hematoma that required surgery to avoid permanent muscle or nerve damage to his leg. The injury would end Wideman’s season.

Arnott did return, however, and it was hoped that where the Caps would feel his presence best and most would be in the playoffs. He did continue to string together points – he closed the regular season with points in two of his last three games and had points in each of the first three games against the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. But his tangible contributions tailed off after that – three points (all assists) in his last six playoff games, managing only six shots on goal in his last five. Whatever chemistry he had with Alexander Semin continued into the post season; Semin was 4-1-5 in his first six playoff contests. But he tailed off, too (0-1-1 in his last three games, all losses to Tampa Bay). The Caps were out in the second round of the playoffs, the 20th time in 22 playoff appearances they bowed out in the first or second round.

Was it worth it? Arnott and Dennis Wideman for a fourth line center (Steckel), a prospect not likely to rise to regular status with the parent club (Hauswirth), and a couple of draft picks, neither one of them being first rounders. The price to take a flyer on a couple of veterans with proven track records to fill gaping holes was low. Of course it was worth it. Only one team wins a Stanley Cup, and to say that the deal was not worth it on that basis is to say that a lot of other teams made deals not worth making. It would be hard to argue with the nature of the deals themselves, either. Arnott’s best days were behind him, but he was an upgrade at that position – second-line center – over anything the Caps had. The Caps could have done much worse than Dennis Wideman in what had become an emergency situation with both Tom Poti and Mike Green on the shelf.

But were the deals consequential? In the end, no. The answer to this question does hinge in large part on whether you win. The Caps could have bowed out in the second round or earlier without these deals having been made, although we are left to wonder if Dennis Wideman’s presence (with Mike Green back in the lineup) might have made a difference in a second round matchup in which the Caps managed only ten goals in four games, losing three of the games by one goal and converting only two of 19 power play opportunities.

If nothing else, looking at the matter of consequence shines a light on the limitation of trading deadline deals. They are the last piece of the puzzle only if the other pieces are in place and fitting together well. That the Caps managed only 23 goals in nine post season games suggest that there were problems bigger than whether Jason Arnott was adequate as a second line center or that Dennis Wideman’s absence made a difference.

It only goes to point out just how hard it is to find the right combination for the lock that guards the Stanley Cup. And even if the moves made at the trading deadline did not have their desired effect, they remain part of one of the top-ten stories of 2011 for the Washington Capitals, serving as a sign to fans that perseverance in pursuit of the prize does not always yield the prize in the end.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 36: Sabres at Capitals, December 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

“No he ain’t. We decided to give cousin Peerless the night off’n so he can go git ready for New Years.”

“Don’t lie to the folks, cousin… we actually have him tied up in the closet.”


“We thought drastic times called for drastic measures, and seeing how he has been so unreliable with his picks this season, we thought he could use the night off, so to speak.”


“He doesn’t seem to like the idea, cuz.”

“And nor should he, but he seems to be suffering the same malady that has befallen Alex Ovechkin this season, and he is not nearly up to his prognosticatorial standard.”

“Ya mean he sucks?”

“That would be putting it a bit uncharitably…let’s just say we’ve heard that kind of noise emanating from his narratives too often over the past couple of months.”

“So, we gonna do those tables and ‘Take 5’s’ and all that sparkly stuff he does?”

“We shall not bother ourselves with copying the style of others. We shall come up with our very own.”

“Ya mean ‘pompous and stoopid?’”

“Absolute--- NO! Of course not!”

“OK, so about these Buffalo Sabres…”

“Well, Cheerless, the Sabres have 95 goals scored so far this season. Nine of them – almost ten percent – have come in two games against the Caps.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, the Sabres are averaging 4.5 goals a game against the Caps and 2.5 against the rest of the league.”

“Bet that goes for the defense, too.”

“Well, Buffalo has allowed only three goals to the Caps in two games and 102 to the other 28 teams in 34 games…so, that’s 1.5 goals allowed per game against Washington and…”

“3.0 against the rest of the league.”

“Very good…what else did you notice?”

“Uh, the Caps and the Sabres have numbers that look a lot alike.”

“Go on…”

“5-on-5…the Caps are 0.96, the Sabres are 0.96. Power play…the Caps are 16.8 percent, the Sabres are 19.1. Penalty kill…Caps are 82.0 percent, Buffalo is 84.1 percent.”

“But they’re different in one important way, Cheerless.”

“Hmm…what’s that, cuz?”

“Buffalo is only 2-5-1 in their last eight games. And their scoring is drying up. In those eight games they have only 19 goals – 2.38 a game. Nine of the goals came in the two wins.”

“Well, one of those wins was against the Caps, Fearless.”

“Right you are, my dim-witted cousin.”

“Who you callin’ ‘dumb?’”

“’Dim’…’dim’…not ‘dumb.’”

“OK…that’s different. Hey, shouldn’t we check and see if Peerless is alright?”

“He’s fine. I left a box of Depends in there with him…”

“Good, I ain’t cleanin’ up no mess in there.”

“Speaking of mess, that has been the Sabres’ penalty kill over this 2-5-1 run. They are 23-for-30…only 76.7 percent.”

“They’re 7-for-8 in two games against the Caps…”

“That they are, and even though Buffalo is having their troubles on penalty kills, they are tearing it up on the power play – 8-for-27 over their last six games; 29.6 percent.”

“Two for five against the Caps in that game last Monday, cuz.”

“You seem to be trying to make a point, Cheerless.”

“Hey, ya like it? I’ve been whittlin’ this stick for days trying to get a nice sharp point on the end of it.”


“Who do we have to pay attention to, cuz? I’m thinkin’ that Pomegranate guy is one we oughtta be watchin’.”

“’Pominville,’ you twit. Jason Pominville. And yes, he bears watching. He has a goal in each game this season against the Caps, including the game-winner in the first meeting back in November. He has eight goals in 25 career games against Washington.”

“And how ‘bout that Vanek guy?”

“Well, at least you got his name right. Thomas Vanek has points in his last six games and eight of his last ten.”

“And he has one in the only game he played against the Caps this season, too.”

“Not to mention nine goals in 25 career games against the Caps.”

“Then why’d ya mention it?”

“Come again?”

“If’n it’s ‘not to mention,’ then why’d ya mention it?”

“It’s a figure of speech, Cheerless.”

“Like a figure eight?”

“Sure…why not. We can’t forget Ryan Miller, either.”

“Didn’t he play for the Caps?”

“That was Kelly.”

“You sure it wasn’t Kip?”

“Him too.”

“Of course, it could have been Kevin…”

“Yeah, him too.”

“But not Ryan…”

“No, not Ryan.”

“Too bad. He’s pretty good.”

“I’d say so. Never won fewer than 30 games in a season, Vezina Trophy winner, first team all-star, Olympic silver medalist.”

“Uh, yeah…but what about this year?”

“Not so much this year, so far at least. He’s 39th among 46 qualifying goalies in goals against average (3.05) and tied for 34th in save percentage (.902). Those nine wins in 20 decisions (9-9-2) certainly puts that run of 30-win seasons in jeopardy.”

“But he’s done pretty good against the Caps, right?”

“12-8-0, 2.49, .916, and three shutouts. That would qualify as ‘pretty good.’”

“How ‘bout the Caps?”

“Well, the Alexes had a pretty good game last time out. Ovechkin might finally be turning things around. He has points in his last four games and has not gone consecutive games without a point since he had a four-game streak without one that ended on November 19th. Since then he is 5-8-13 in 17 games. The four-game points streak he is on ties his longest of the season.”

“He’s got a funny set of numbers against Buffalo, though.”

“Do tell…”

“15 goals in 25 career games against the Sabres, but he is a minus-8 in those 25 games, too.”

“It is a puzzle.”

“Semin seems to be scoring some…”

“Points in four of his last five games, 4-2-6 overall in those games. It’s not that he’s necessarily shooting more – 10 shots in those five games – but he is finally getting some of them to go in. His two goals against the Rangers were especially pretty.”

“Very Seminesque.”

“Very poetic, Cheerless.”

“Whaddya mean, ‘pathetic?’”

“Po-etic…po-etic…po po po.”

“OK OK OK! So, is this the part where we oughtta be prognosticatin’?”

“I suppose.”

“I got Buffa…”


“Peerless, how’d you get out?”

You guys are as good at locking folks up as you are at prognosticating.

“Uh, we wuz only tryin’ t’help…seein’ how you were in a slump’n all.”

“OK, cousin. You’re the professional prognosticator here. How do you see this coming out?”

The Caps started the year with a 3-1 win. It would be a good way to end it.

Capitals 3 - Sabres 1

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 8: "The Streak III"

Next up in our look at the top ten stories of 2011 for the Washington Capitals is another streak. Imagine that…

On March 9, 2008, the Washington Capitals hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Sunday afternoon game that would complete the 2007-2008 season series for the two teams. Pittsburgh won two of the first three matches, all three of the games decided by one goal and two of them in extra time (each team winning one).

This one looked as if it would be another one-goal, overtime affair as the clock ticked down to the one minute mark in regulation time. Then something odd happened. With a crowd of players jabbing at the puck in front of Capitals goalie Cristobal Huet, the puck squirted to Nicklas Backstrom at Huet’s left. In an effort to relieve the pressure, Backstrom looked as if he was trying to nudge the puck past the post and behind the net. However, his aim was not true. He backhanded the puck into his own net to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead with 28 seconds left. Jordan Staal added an empty net goal moments later, and the Penguins won the game, 4-2, and the season series three games to one. It was a game marked by some interesting milestones…

-- The loss was the second in regulation in a row suffered by the Caps, the first time it had occurred in 48 games under head coach Bruce Boudreau, who took over the club in November 2007.

-- It was the tenth time in eleven tries that Sidney Crosby’s Penguins beat Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals when both players dressed.

-- It was the eighth game in a row that the Capitals did not allow a first period goal.

And one other thing… it was the last time the Caps would lose to the Penguins in regulation time in a regular season game for more than three years.

The next time the teams would meet in the regular season, no sane person would have looked on and thought the Caps were about to embark on a three year run of success against the Pens. In the first meeting of the 2009-2010 season, Pittsburgh ran out to a 3-0 lead less than 22 minutes into the game. But the Caps got them all back, and they added one for good measure from the unlikeliest of sources – Boyd Gordon doing the deed with 4:17 to play – to hand the Penguins a home-ice loss.

Starting with that game, the Caps would earn points in 13 consecutive games and post a record of 11-0-2 against Pittsburgh from the beginning of the 2008-2009 season through the first game of the 2011-2012 season. Some things to note about the streak…

-- The Capitals would outscore the Penguins by a 51-31 margin in those 13 games.

-- In the 11 wins the Caps would have 10 game-winning goals (one win came via a Gimmick). Nine different players had those game-winners. Sergei Fedorov, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, Mike Knuble (he had the Gimmick winner, too), Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Dennis Wideman each contributed a game-winning goal. The only player with two was Tomas Fleischmann.

-- The leading goal scorer was, as you might expect, Alex Ovechkin with 13 in the 13 games. He was also the leading overall point-getter with 18 points (13-5-18). Nicklas Backstrom was 1-16-17 over the streak. Alexander Semin was 6-7-13, and Mike Green was 1-8-9 for a total Young Guns contribution of 21-36-57.

-- What the fan who watches the Caps closely would not be surprised by is the fact that Mike Knuble, despite playing in only nine of the 13 games, was second in goals scored for the Caps against the Penguins in the streak. He had eight goals in those nine games.  He has been a Penguin killer his whole career.

-- The Caps were 31.7 percent on the power play, 83.9 percent on penalty kills.

-- Only twice in 13 games did the Caps receive more power play opportunities than the Penguins. Pittsburgh had the advantage in opportunities eight times. Three times the Caps had but one opportunity in a game; in two of them they scored.

-- 17 different players would record goals in the streak; 28 different players would record points.

As far as the goalies are concerned, here is how they fared:

-- Jose Theodore: 6-0-1, 2.92, .907
-- Semyon Varlamov: 2-0-0, 2.00, .935
-- Michal Neuvirth: 2-0-1, 0.65, .977, two shutouts
-- Tomas Vokoun: 1-0-0, 1.92, .951

Ah, but all good things do come to an end. And while “13” would be a lucky number, it would not become “14.” The Caps won the first game on the 2011-2012 season series against the Penguins on an overtime power-play goal from Dennis Wideman. But the Penguins ended the streak when they visited the Caps on December 1st.

It was a hard fought game, but frankly one that the Caps probably should have won. They did a fine job of holding back the Penguin stars. Sidney Crosby did not record a point, had two giveaways, and was only 6-for-22 on faceoffs. Evgeni Malkin had seven shots on goal, but did not record a point, either. The Caps were beaten by a pair of grunts – Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams getting the goals – and a grinding defense that limited the Caps to 17 shots on goal, only three of them coming from the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin.

Still, the Caps loss at home to the Penguins did nothing to change another streak that still lives against the Penguins. The Caps have not lost a game in regulation to the Penguins in Pittsburgh since February 18, 2007, a 3-2 loss. Only five Capitals who played in that game are on the current roster – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, John Erskine, and Jeff Schultz. Brent Johnson, who currently toils as the Penguins backup netminder, was the losing goaltender for the Capitals in that game.

But that is a streak for another day’s discussion. That the Caps extended their points-streak against the Penguins by four games in 2011 – starting with the Winter Classic, adding two shutouts, and ending it with an overtime winner in the Penguins’ shiny new palace – places this streak among the top ten stories of 2011 for the Capitals.

A TWO-point night -- Game 35: Capitals 4 - Rangers 1

Tease or turnaround?

The Washington Capitals sleepwalked their way to a 17-15-2 record through 34 games, and then they play a game like the one last night that resulted in a 4-1 win over the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers.

The Caps scored first, last, and in-between, getting a pair of goals from Alexander Semin (his first multi-goal game since recording a hat trick against Anaheim on February 16th of last season – 54 games in all). They got a pair of assists from Alex Ovechkin (his first multi-point game since November 4th – 24 games in all). They got two goals from the line of Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson and Jeff Halpern (as a group, they had a total of five goals over the previous month). They got 31 saves from Tomas Vokoun (the first time he allowed fewer than two goals on more than 30 shots since November 11th).

It was as efficient a win the Caps put together since the last game of their season-opening seven-game winning streak when they defeated Detroit, 7-1.

Other stuff…

-- Before too much back-slapping gets underway, it was not Henrik Lundqvist that the Caps beat for four goals on 23 shots. It was Martin Biron. But before too much pooh-poohing of that result gets started, Biron did come into this game with a 7-1-0 record with a 1.84 GAA and .933 save percentage with one shutout.

-- The Ranger defense left much to be desired. Michael Del Zotto was his own training tape on how not to play the position on the Caps’ first goal. He was slow to pursue a loose puck sliding into his end, and in trying to move the puck forward once he corralled it he managed only to put it on the stick of Marcus Johansson. After Johansson dropped the puck for Jeff Halpern cruising into the offensive zone, Del Zotto lost Johansson as he headed to the net. When Halpern’s drive was stopped by Biron, Del Zotto was nowhere to be found as Johansson settled the rebound and stuffed it in.

-- It was Ryan McDonagh’s turn on the Caps' second goal. He was quite literally standing around watching things from in front of Biron’s crease as the Caps worked the puck out and around to John Carlson at the left point. While Carlson was doing a fine job to keep the puck in and set up for the shot, Troy Brouwer circled out in front of the net. McDonagh was standing right next to Brouwer, getting a good look at Brouwer setting a screen in front of Biron as Carlson let fly with a shot. McDonagh did not so much as nudge Brouwer as the Cap deflected the Carlson drive through Biron’s pads for the second goal.

-- On the third goal, Jeff Woywitka was not the one who coughed up the puck at the Caps’ blue line (that was Brad Richards), but he was caught in the middle of the ice as Nicklas Backstrom picked up the loose puck and sent it up to Alexander Semin heading up the right side. Caught in the middle of the ice and behind Semin, Woywitka could not turn fast enough to defend Semin and was left chasing Semin to the Ranger net. Semin had a clear path to curl in, move the puck to his backhand, and sweep it up and over Biron for the Caps’ third goal.

-- Then it was Del Zotto again (although he was not alone). One can only wonder what he was thinking when he saw Alex Ovechkin carrying the puck into the Ranger zone with Brad Richards (Brad Richards?) fronting him. Del Zotto thought it would be a good idea to drift to Ovechkin’s side of the ice, leaving a yawning gap on the right side that Alexander Semin filled. Of course, the forward support that would have been expected to cut off Ovechkin’s cut to the middle was late (Carl Hagelin, that’s you, although in fairness he had to cover ground from the far corner of the rink to get into position), so what the Rangers were left with was a forward playing defense (Richards), a forward late getting to his spot (Hagelin), and a defenseman, well, we’re not sure what he was doing:

(click pic for larger image)

All Semin had to do was shoot the puck before Del Zotto could scamper back to his side of the ice. He did, it went in, and the Caps had their fourth goal.

-- Richards had one of those frustrating nights for the Rangers. Eight shot attempts, four shots on goal, no points, and he was on the ice for three goals. At least his horror was spread over almost 20 minutes of ice time. Carl Hagelin was on the ice for three goals in 12 minutes. His minus-3 was only the second minus game he had recorded in 17 games this season.

-- It was especially frustrating for Richards – and for Marian Gaborik, too – in that the Rangers had eight shots on goal on five power plays (three by Richards, two by Gaborik). Tomas Vokoun was solid in goal and, as they saying goes, the power play’s best defender when he had to be.

-- Eight different Caps shared in the scoring, each member of the top two lines recording at least one point, and defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner getting an assist apiece.

-- There is that whole “short bench” thing going with the Caps these days. The fourth line even-strength ice time – Matt Hendricks: 6:44, Jay Beagle: 5:55, and Mike Knuble: 6:55 – was barely as much (19:34) as Dennis Wideman had in even-strength ice time by himself (18:41). The fourth line had one even-strength shift in the third period. But that said, only Nicklas Backstrom among the forwards recorded more than 20 minutes of ice time, and that was a product of his getting 4:22 in shorthanded ice time.

-- Only nine of 51 faceoffs were taken in the Caps’ offensive zone (the Caps won five of them). Twenty-five of the 51 draws were taken in the neutral zone.

-- It was a game that might have ended a lot differently but for the Rangers’ defensive breakdowns. The Caps managed only 49 shot attempts in 60 minutes (only 13 in the third period) and only 23 shots on goal. But the Caps were spot-on in taking advantage of those breakdowns when they occurred.

-- Jeff Halpern wins the ticket to the all-you-can-eat score sheet buffet. He had an assist, three shots on goal, six shot attempts, three hits, two blocked shots, won seven of 11 draws, and finished plus-2.

-- John Tortorella does not take losing gracefully. Some might find that charming. In fact, it is somewhat refreshing to hear someone who is genuinely angry when they lose, rather than searching for the right tone. But his commentary about the Caps after the game might get remembered the same way Dan Bylsma’s comment about Michal Neuvirth’s skill as a goaltender last season might have been remembered (you will recall Neuvirth shut out the Penguins twice after Bylsma was heard during the HBO 24/7 series saying of Neuvirth that "this goalie isn't that good, all right? He will give us rebounds, he has, and he will give us cheesy ones on the net."). After last night’s game, Tortorella said of the Caps, “"They're an opportunistic team. They don't want to defend. They want nothing to do with it. So what do we do? We don't allow them to defend on those plays and they go score goals and then they get rolling.”

In the end, we will repeat what we said at the beginning. The Caps were efficient. They were, as John Tortorella put it, opportunistic. They were not dominating. But on a night like this, when they were not dominating, they have to have their skill players come through when the opportunities are available. Alexander Semin is Exhibit “A” for that idea. He had perhaps his best game of the season – two goals, a blocked shot, no penalties taken. And he had help from Alex Ovechkin, who set Semin up for one goal and provided an assist on Semin’s second goal.

It was a solid win against an opponent that plays well on the road and was riding a five-game winning streak. It would be hard to ask for more…

…except to do it more often than once a week.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Path to the Top-Eight

If things go like sane people think, the Capitals could be starting 2012 with a record of 18-17-2 (this assumes they lose to the Rangers and Buffalo – teams that have already dominated the Caps this season – and beat Columbus).

That is going to leave the Caps a deep hole from which to dig to make the playoffs (but not as deep as you might think…we’ll get to that). How might they get into the top-eight you ask? Well, there are things to look for as the months of the 2012 calendar flip over…


The Caps have six home games and six road games in the month, with the hard part coming early and the sneaky part coming late. After the Caps host Calgary to open 2012 they go on the road to San Jose and Los Angeles. The Caps do not do well on the left coast in the best of times, and a split of those games would have to be thought of as “better than expected.” That makes the ensuing home stand the critical part of the month. It is a four-gamer that starts with Pittsburgh, followed up by Tampa Bay, Carolina, and the Islanders. Given where the Caps are likely to start the 2012 portion of the season, winning three of these four is critical.

The four-game home stand is followed by a three game road swing to Montreal, Carolina, and Pittsburgh. The Caps have sucked on toast on the road this season, and they need to show an ability to at least hold their own away from Verizon Center. They will be getting two teams below them in the standings (as of today, December 28th) and a team they have not lost to on enemy ice in quite some time (December 27, 2007 in overtime; February 18, 2007 in regulation). Splitting the six points here should be regarded as the minimally acceptable outcome.

By our reckoning, if the Caps split the last two games of the month between Boston and Tampa Bay, January works out to a record of 7-4-1. Season record: 25-21-3/53 points


This is not just a month that is a run-up to the trading deadline, it will be the make or break month for the Caps in an important respect. Of the 14 games they will play in February, six will be played against Southeast Division opponents (teams they have dominated in recent years), three others will be against teams currently below them in the standings (Montreal twice and the Islanders), and another will be against a team they are battling with for a playoff berth (Ottawa). Given that three of the other four games will be played against current powerhouses Boston, the Rangers, and San Jose, the Caps need to make hay while the sun shines on those ten games against lesser opponents.

The Caps will open the month by closing a three game road trip. From Tampa Bay to close January, the Caps will visit Florida and Montreal. We are not convinced that the Panthers are all they have been in the 2011 portion of the season. In fact, they are 3-3-3 in their last nine games and have allowed 31 goals in doing so. We have to think that even on the road, three points in those two games is more than doable.

The Caps then return for a three-game home stand with Boston opening it and closing it with Florida and Winnipeg. The Caps were once – and are still, to some degree – a formidable home team. Winning all three should not be considered impossible, but we would set a floor under four points for the three games.

The six-game stretch that follows is what could make or break the season. The Caps travel to New York to take on the Rangers, come home for one game against San Jose, then go on the road for four. By mid-February, the Caps should be favored in all four of those road games – Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Ottawa. But it sure would be nice to gain a split in those first two games of this critical six-game split. It is here that the Caps need to start (if they haven’t already) their finishing kick to end the season on a roll heading into the playoffs. If they stumble here, they will have serious problems. Complicating the matter for the Caps is that in this six-game run they will have two back-to-back series: the first two (at the Rangers and home to San Jose) and the next two (at Florida and at Tampa Bay).

It is a tough month, but 19 points looks reasonable – a 9-4-1 record. Season record: 34-25-4/72 points.


By now, the roster will be set. Whatever tweaking George McPhee and his team will do will be done. And it is good thing, too, because March will be a long month. Sixteen games in 31 days, three back-to-backs. The best to be said about this month is that the Caps have nine home games. But there is a five-game road trip in the middle of the month that could kill them.

Before that road trip, the Caps will open the month with four home games – New Jersey, Philadelphia, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. Six points, minimum. The Caps have to bank these points for what awaits them later in the month. Right before the big road trip the Caps will visit Boston for the first time this season and will return home to finish their season series against Toronto. Split. That will make the Caps 4-2-0 as they head out for the five-game road swing that will take them to Long Island, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. One would have to think the Caps have to win the first two of those games, grab at least two points out of the other three. A 3-2-0 road trip would be a big boost heading into the last two weeks of the season.

But booby traps will remain in March. The Caps will play four of their last five games of March at home, but Minnesota and Buffalo certainly have the capacity to give the Caps fits. Add in that the lone away game is the Caps’ second visit to Boston of the month, and the end of March looks daunting. Of course, if their five-game road trip was unsuccessful, it might not matter much how they end March. 3-2-0 would not be the worst way to end the month, finishing March up at 10-6-0. Season record: 44-31-4/92 points.


We are left with three games in April to close the season – on the road at Tampa Bay and the Rangers, with a home date against Florida splitting the road games. By this time Tampa Bay should have long been eliminated, and we have our doubts that Florida would be a strong team by this point of the season. Wins there offsetting a loss to the Rangers in the season finale would not be the best way to end the season, but the loss to the Rangers also presumes that the Caps will have clinched a playoff berth. The 2-1-0 April record would leave the Caps at 46-32-4 and 96 points.

There are those who will look at this scenario and the Caps’ 28-15-2 record in the 2012 portion of the season and think that Cheerless thought this up. The fact is, it would resemble last year’s post-New Year’s record (26-11-6) and would result in fewer wins and standings points in that portion of the season than two of the previous three seasons.

The flip side is that the Caps have to start playing more like the team they were the last four seasons than the one they have been through the 2011 portion of the season so far. What helps them out is that looking at the standings, standings points, and games played, the “Mirtle Threshold” of 92-points to make the playoffs might be high. At the moment, Winnipeg is on a pace to finish with 89 points and finish eighth in the Eastern Conference. The Caps are on a pace to finish ninth with 87 points. It would not take much of a bump to push the Caps ahead of the Jets and into the top eight. It is still a situation that merits concern. It is still not the time for panic.

Just play a little bit better, boys.

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 9: "The Streak II"

On March 3, 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Washington Capitals, 5-2, at Verizon Center. On that Tuesday night, the Caps found themselves suffering the second of what would become a four-game losing streak. But the story within the story was that paid attendance was 17,903.

It was the last game the Caps did not sell out.

Tonight, the Capitals will welcome 18,506 fans to Verizon Center (whether all of them will show up is another matter). It will be the 124th consecutive sellout for the franchise, regular season and playoffs. That is 2,276,436 tickets sold over that span of time, a number that if you brought them all together in one place would constitute the fourth largest city in the United States.*

It is a far cry from the spring of 2003, when one well-connected observer of the local hockey landscape opined:

"The market has spoken. The truth of the matter was that we worked very, very hard to expand our fan base, and it was apparent we didn't capture the imagination of a broader base of fan…We're certainly not going to increase our payroll, because there doesn't seem to be a correlation between wins and losses and attendance.''

Well, even the most astute of businessmen can be wrong from time to time, because you see, over those 123 games heading into tonight’s contest, the Caps have compiled a record covering both regular seasons and playoffs of 78-28-17. In the last three regular seasons preceding this one the Caps’ home record ranked third, first, and second last year in standing points earned. Winning and attendance seems to have gone hand-in-glove.

That unbroken string of sellouts continued over the entire calendar year about to end. But nothing lasts forever. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche. Although there are those who will contend that the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens have not played to an empty seat at home since the discovery of ice, the Avalanche are credited with the longest streak of sellouts in the NHL at 487 games, from November 1995 to October 2006. From the 1995-1996 season through the 2005-2006 season, the Avalanche won two Stanley Cups, four times lost in the Western Conference finals, and otherwise qualified for the playoffs in each of those seasons. It was the Golden Age of Avalanche hockey with players such as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg firing pucks into nets and goaltender Patrick Roy keeping them out.

Any of this sound familiar (without the Stanley Cups, that is)?

In that 2006-2007 season in which the Avalanche sellout streak ended early on, Colorado did not qualify for the playoffs, the first time they failed to do so since they moved from Quebec to Denver in 1994. Over the last five seasons the Avs have seen their wins dwindle and their crowds do likewise. They currently rank 22nd in attendance, between Florida and Carolina, two locales not generally associated with being hot beds of hockey.

The sellout streak for the Capitals that started in 2009 and continues today is a combination of hard work by the front office in marketing the team, a community with considerable disposable income, and perhaps most important a team that has won more often than any Capitals team in franchise history. Three consecutive 100-plus point seasons (the first time that has been accomplished by the Caps in 25 years), a Presidents’ Trophy, and one of the best win-loss records at home over the past three seasons will go a long way to bringing fans to the stands.

The Capitals also have had the benefit of misfortune – of others, that is. Consider this. From 2009 through this past weekend the Redskins – the flagship sports franchise in these parts – posted a record of 15-32. They have not qualified for the playoffs since 2007 and have not won a playoff game since 2005. Only the most burgundy-and-gold addled fan would see a Super Bowl in that team’s near future. The Nationals have a record of 208-277 over the same span and have neither qualified for the playoffs nor posted a record above .500 since moving to D.C. from Montreal before the 2005 season. The Wizards? Over the last three full seasons they have a record of 68-178. They have not won a playoff series since 2005 and won their only championship when Jimmy Carter was President. When you are the only major professional sports team in town winning at all, and the Capitals have been that, people will notice.

Hard work and good fortune have made the Caps the “must see” sports franchise in Washington the past few years. But one has to wonder whether the winning window for the team on the ice is starting to close (they would not qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today) and whether the slippage in on ice performance coupled with the bitter disappointment of recent playoff experience would be mirrored by one in the stands, just as winning begat big crowds.

Then there is the matter of other professional teams in the area. The Redskins are still dysfunctional but draw on a reservoir of good will that might not be bottomless, but it sure is deep. The Wizards have their work to do. The Nationals, though, did show some improvement last season and could – if things break right for them – contend for a wild-card playoff berth next season. In a year or two, the Nats might be the must-see team in these parts.

The preceding discussion should not, and it does not diminish the accomplishments of the Capitals to sustain a sellout streak well over 100 games over the past few seasons. That is especially true given that this area is not nearly the hockey hot bed that places such as Boston, Detroit, Chicago, or New York might be, let alone Canadian teams. It merely points out that these things have a shelf life, and the expiration date is likely to come when it becomes clear that the on-ice product is not what it might have been a couple of years ago. But that the Capitals can sustain and did sustain that streak throughout the course of 2011 makes it one of the top stories of the year for the team.

* All numbers based on NHL game reports.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 35: Rangers at Capitals, December 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Today – December 28th – is the fourth day of Christmas, and that being the case...what the…uh, Cheerless, what do you have there?

“Four colly birds.”

Four what?

“Colly birds, like in the song.”

Isn’t that “four calling birds?”

“Nope…somebody screwed up when they made up the words to that song – I’m guessin’ it was Fearless – it’s ‘colly’ birds. Blackbirds…it has somethin’ to do with coal. Y’know… black… coal… coal mine… colliery… colly. It’s pretty simple.”

Well, you’d know simple. So, are you giving those to your “true love?”

“Hell no! I’m gonna find 20 more and bake ‘em in a pie!”

Merry Christmas, cousin…

Well, tonight the Caps celebrate the fourth day of Christmas by hosting the New York Rangers in the second meeting of the teams this season. In the first one the Rangers, as they have frequently lately in the regular season, pasted the Caps, dropping them by a 6-3 score. That one ended in a manner not suggested by the early going, as the teams played to a scoreless first period. But the Rangers scored three goals in the second period in a span of 4:22, and the competitive portion of the contest was over.

The Caps will try to make things more competitive this time around, but they will be facing a team that has won five games in a row. Not only that, the Blueshirts have allowed more than two goals only once in their last ten games. For a team like the Caps trying to find its offensive rhythm, this is a tough opponent to try to find it against. For the season, here is how the teams compare to one another:

(click pic for larger image)

The Rangers are a formidable bunch that is highly ranked in most team statistical categories. But they are considerably less formidable away from home, especially when it comes to the matter of special teams, where instead of being truly “special,” they are merely pretty good or, in the case of their power play, pretty bad.

1. In the first six years since the lockout, the Rangers were an underrated defensive team. Three times they finished fourth in goals allowed per game, and on one other occasion – last season – they finished fifth. That is largely the product of having a world-class goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. So far this season they have turned it up a notch, ranking second in goals allowed per game (2.03). Twenty-four times in 34 games they have allowed two or fewer goals, and their 2.17 goals allowed per game on the road is third best in the league.

2. John Tortorella has found Marian Gaborik’s “on” switch. He has goals in 11 of his last 16 games over which he has a total of 13 goals (a 67-goal pace). He is shooting at a 33.3 percent pace (13-for-39) in those 16 games. Only twice has he had as many as four shots in a game over this run. He is, at the moment, the very definition of “sniper.”

3. Little things…the Rangers rank third in the league in hits recorded on the road, seventh in blocked shots, and 11th in takeaways.

4. If the Rangers score first, they win. Only Chicago has fewer losses when scoring first (an overtime loss) than New York (two, one in regulation and one in extra time).

5. The Rangers are on a five-game winning streak, but it has been accomplished without much in the way of contributions on offense from Brad Richards. The most sought-after player in the 2011 free agent class is 1-0-1 in those five games (although he is a plus-3). He has not lacked for trying though, that one goal coming on 17 shots in the five games.

1. The Caps have not been especially hot or cold under Dale Hunter thus far. Two losses, a win, a loss, two wins, loss, win, loss, win, Gimmick loss, and a loss to go 5-6-1.

2. The Caps have lost four straight regular season games to the Blueshirts, giving up 20 goals (not including a Gimmick game-winner) in the process. In the last 12 playoff games the Caps have played against the Rangers they allowed a total of 19 goals and shut them out three times.  We will take the former to get the latter.

3. The Caps have a middle-of-the-road power play (at best) overall, but they are third in the NHL in power play efficiency at home (22.6 percent). The trouble is, the Caps rank only 22nd in total power play opportunities at home and 20th in home power play opportunities-per-game.

4. The Caps are minus-8 (goals scored to goals allowed) in the first period, minus-9 in the second period. But they are plus-8 in the third and plus-5 in overtime.

5. No team has scored more four-on-four goals than the Caps (seven). Of course, that is probably a product of going 5-0 in overtime games when the teams are 4-on-4.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Ryan Callahan

Sure, Marian Gaborik gets a lot of goals. Brad Richards gets a lot of points. They are one-two on the Rangers power play scoring list. But Ryan Callahan leads the team in power play goals (six). He is tied for eighth in the league in that statistic. Starting with a three-assist night against the Caps on November 25th, Callahan is 5-10-15 in his last 16 games. He is on a pace (31-31-62) to shatter his personal bests in goals (23), assists (25), and points (48) set last season. He is 7-6-13 in 15 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera might have saved the Caps season, at least for a while, last spring when he scored a goal in the second overtime of Game 4 to give the Caps a 4-3 win. The Caps, who were down 3-0 in that game before coming back to win, could have returned to DC tied 2-2 in games, but Chimera’s heroics sent the Caps home up 3-1, and they would clinch in Game 5. This season Chimera is on a pace to finish with a career high 31 goals. Of the 13 goals he has so far, five of them have come in nine games against Atlantic Division opponents. OK, four of them have come against New Jersey, but he does have three in 12 career games against the Rangers.


1. Kill ‘em all. Since the seven-game winning streak to open the season ended, the Caps are 2-8-1 in games in which they allow a power play goal. The Rangers are 14-1-2 when they score one. Not hard to figure out where the fault line on this game lies.

2. Shoot, don’t get shot at. The Rangers are 11-2-0 when outshooting their opponents, the best such record in the league. The Caps are 6-10-2 when they are outshot. Only five teams have a lower winning percentage in such games.

3. Keep it close. The Caps have the seventh best record in the league in one-goal games. Meanwhile, the Rangers are only 6-2-4 in such games. They are 16-6 when the games are decided by two or more goals.

In the end, the Rangers have the best record in the East, and it is not a fluke. They have 11 wins at home, 11 wins on the road. What they are, though, is streaky. They have a seven-game winning streak and two five-game winning streaks (including the one they bring into this game). But the Rangers have avoided the long losing streak. Since losing their first three games of the season (0-1-2) they are 22-7-2 and have not had a losing streak longer than two games. They are 11-4-0 in their last 15 road games. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is 4-2-1, 1.42, .951 with a shutout in his last seven games. The Rangers are coming to town humming on all their cylinders.

On the other hand, the Caps can’t seem to get their machine to turn over with any consistency. They are 3-3-0 in six home games under Dale Hunter. What they have been able to do, however, in those seven home games is to play pretty good defense. In five of the six games the Caps allowed two or fewer goals. But scoring only 14 goals in those six games has kept the Caps from winning an extra game or two (two of the losses came by 2-1 scores), thereby keeping them on the wrong side of the playoff-eligible divide. This is not going to be a high-scoring game, the Rangers’ propensities for laying the lumber lately to the Caps notwithstanding.

Capitals 2 – Rangers 1

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Pennsylvania Parallel

The Caps, as all Caps fans know, changed coaches in late November, swapping out Bruce Boudreau for Dale Hunter.  And immediately, thoughts turned to another coaching change made in mid-season not too long ago.  The Pittsburgh Penguins relieved Michel Therrien in mid-season during the 2008-2009 campaign in favor of Dan Bylsma, won just about every game they played thereafter in the regular season, then went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Folks might have thought this would be the way it would go for the Caps. Well, not so fast.  The Caps under Hunter are a middling 5-6-1 and going nowhere in a big hurry in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.  So much for that comparison, at least so far.

But perhaps it is a case of "right state, wrong city" when it comes to comparisons.  Forward to the 2009-2010 season.  Another team got off to a good start, winning their first three games (the Caps won their first seven this season), then puttered around the .500 mark for the next 20 games or so.  The team's management saw enough to know that a change was needed behind the bench and brought in a coach that had no experience in his new team's organization. 

It took a while for the new coach and his new team to get on the same page.  He and his team were pasted in their first outing together, taking an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the Capitals.  The team was 2-7-1 under their new coach and looked ugly doing it, failing to score more than two goals in any of their eight losses under the new regime.

But the coach and his players found the same page, got their skates under them, and won the last four games of the 2009 portion of the season, averaging more than four goals a game in doing so.  It was a team that wouldn't rocket to the top of the standings in the 2010 portion of the season, though.  In fact, they went only 22-17-4 after the calendar turned over and played to an under .500 record over their last 20 games (8-9-3).

It was a team that made the playoffs by the thinest of margins -- by winning a shootout in their 82nd game against the team that would have gone in their place had that other team prevailed.  But win by that margin they did.  They would go on to sandwich a pair of five-game playoff series wins around perhaps the most improbable playoff series comeback in NHL history.  After dropping their first three games, then coming back to tie the series at three games apiece only to go down by a 3-0 score in Game 7, the team roared back with four unanswered goals against one of the best goaltenders of this generation to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.  The team went on to the Stanley Cup finals, where they finally fell short.  But it was an amazing ride for that team, their new coach, and their rabid fans. 

The Caps have not found magic in a bottle (yet) and seem likely to struggle to get and keep a hold on one of the slots in the bottom half of the playoff seedings.  But in taking this path, perhaps the analogy one is searching for isn't Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins (Bylsma was promoted from within the Penguins' system), but rather Peter Laviolette and the 2009-2010 Philadelphia Flyers.

(a doff of the cap to The Washington Times' Ted Starkey, as well as J.P. and the contributors at Japers' Rink who reminded us where the Flyers were this time in 2009).

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 10: "The Streak"

There were no HBO cameras around to chronicle this one. No clips of players with vacant stares contemplating the latest loss, no pose with a coach’s head in his hands, no behind-the-closed-door exhortation to “grab some sack” that accompanied the eight-game losing streak in the 2010 portion of the 2010-2011 season.

When the Washington Capitals embarked on a nine-game winning streak from February 26th through March 15th, it did not even start in a fashion that would have hinted at almost three weeks of unbroken success. In fact, it started with a blowout. Against the Rangers.


Perhaps the low point of the Capitals regular season was captured by HBO in their 24/7 series covering the run-up to the Winter Classic on January 1st. That low point happened to be a 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden in which the Caps were reduced to pylons for a Rangers’ skating and shooting drill, and the Captain – Alex Ovechkin – finally had his own frustration boil over in a fight against the Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky.

And it happened again in late February. The Capitals took the ice at Verizon Center after a 13-day road trip and had their lunches eaten in front of them by the Rangers, who pulverized the Caps, 6-0. It was made worse by the fact that defenseman Mike Green, who had missed five games with a concussion and the flu, skated two shifts and 2:25 before being driven into the boards by Derek Stepan in what would be his final regular season game of the 2010-2011 season.

One would not have thought that such a game would signal a reversal of fortune of the sort that the Caps would enjoy for the next three weeks. And making it worse was that the Caps had to visit Long Island the following night to take on the New York Islanders.

That game had all the hallmarks of another uninspired effort in a late February game that folks would forget by the middle of the following week. And when the Islanders took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Kyle Okposo in the first period, it looked as if the Caps would give back another two points after a 3-2-0 road trip in which they played quite well.

It got worse. Travis Hamonic scored a goal 33 seconds into the second period when John Carlson tried to glove down Hamonic’s floater from the point and only managed to deflect the shot down and around the stick of goalie Michal Neuvirth. There was a breakaway by Frans Nielsen less than four minutes into the period that he shot wide. There was Michael Grabner with nothing but an open net to shoot at from the bottom of the right wing circle to Neuvirth’s left barely four minutes into the period that he could not convert. There was John Taveares getting a good look on a power play from the right wing circle, but his wrist shot was gloved down by Neuvirth.

The Caps were lucky to be behind only 2-0 at that point. The inability of the Islanders to pad that lead came back to haunt them mid-way through the period. The Islanders turned the puck over at center ice, and John Carlson fed it across to Brooks Laich at the Islander blue line. Laich stepped around Hamonic and curled to the net where he wristed the puck past goalie Al Montoya to halve the lead.

If nothing else, it stopped the momentum – that of the Islanders, who got out to that early lead, and that of the Caps, who were in a five-period funk at that point. Laich made things happen again early in the third period when he took the puck from Marcus Johansson and curled through the right wing circle toward the Islander net. With defenseman Ty Wishart trying to tie him up, the puck slid across the crease to Mike Knuble with an open net to shoot at. Josh Bailey could not get to Knuble in time to prevent a backhander from finding the back of the net, and the game was tied.

Barely three minutes later, Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin were rushing into the Islander zone. Ovechkin left the puck for Semin at the Islander line, and it was all Semin from there. He took the puck to the middle of the ice, and using Hamonic as a screen fired the puck low and off the post to Montoya’s left for what would be the game-winner. Not that the game would not be without its moments thereafter. Not least among them was a 55-second sequence in the game’s dying moments in which the Islanders attempted five shots on goal. All of them were blocked (two by Boyd Gordon, two by Jeff Schultz, and one by Scott Hannan) to seal the win.

From there, the Capitals would refine their ability to come from behind and come out ahead in one-goal decisions. They beat those same Islanders three days later at Verizon Center, 2-1. With 48 seconds left Brooks Laich took a feed from just-acquired Jason Arnott to score the tying goal (it was Arnott’s first game with the Caps). Then, it was Alex Ovechkin getting the game winner 1:55 into overtime by darting between two Islanders and backhanding the puck past goalie Nathan Larson for thei Caps’ second straight win.

Arnott would figure heavily in the Caps’ third win in a row, scoring the game-winner 14:41 into the third period of a 3-2 home win over the St. Louis Blues, a game that featured the Caps twice coming back from one-goal deficits and defenseman Scott Hannan’s first goal as a Cap.

The Caps made it four in a row and four one-goal wins in a row with a 3-2 win in Florida against the Panthers that lifted them into first place in the Southeast Division over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Game 5 in the streak featured another one-goal decision and another come-from-behind win, this time a 2-1 Gimmick victory over the Lightning. It could have been a disaster for the Caps when Michal Neuvirth took a shot off his mask in the first period that dislodged some metal that found its way into his eye. Neuvirth finished the period, but Braden Holtby took over from there, stopping all 21 shots he saw in the second and third periods, and overtime. Then he stopped all three shots he saw in the trick shot phase of the contest. Meanwhile, Alexander Semin got the game-tying goal by rifling another shot off a post and in with just over five minutes left in regulation. After both teams had several chances in the overtime to ice things, it was Alex Ovechkin getting the only goal in the Gimmick to give the Caps their fifth straight win.

The Caps finally got a laugher of sorts by sticking a five-spot on the Edmonton Oilers in a 5-0 win that saw a number of milestones reached for the Caps. First, Braden Holtby recorded his first NHL shutout, stopping all 22 shots he faced. Second, Alex Ovechkin recorded a pair of goals to enable him to top the 600-point mark in his career. Jason Arnott recorded his 900th career point, assisting on Ovechkin’s first goal of the contest 5:38 into the second period. It happened to be Ovechkin’s first power play goal at Verizon Center for the season. Dennis Wideman notched his 200th career point on a third period goal by Alexander Semin. In between, Eric Fehr recorded a pair of goals in his first game back after missing 22 games to a shoulder injury. And Marco Sturm – acquired via waivers from Los Angeles – recorded his first point for Washington with an assist on the Semin goal.

It was back to one-goal decisions after that, though. The Caps defeated Carolina, 2-1, in yet another come-from-behind win. After Carolina scored with 36 seconds left in the second period, the Caps came back with a pair in the third – Alex Ovechkin’s 28th goal of the season just 47 seconds into the period and Matt Hendricks getting what would be the game-winner at 7:24. Braden Holtby recorded his third win in a row in goal, stopping 40 of 41 shots, including 16 in the third period to preserve the win. Since replacing Neuvirth against Tampa Bay, Holtby was on a run of stopping 83 of 84 shots over eight periods (.988 save percentage).

Game 8 in the streak was, you guessed it, another come-from-behind one-goal win. The eighth victim in the streak was the Chicago Blackhawks. After Chicago got the first goal – a Nick Leddy slap shot 4:46 into the game – the Caps’ special teams went to work. Boyd Gordon got the Caps even with a shorthanded goal 85 seconds after Leddy’s tally, and Jason Arnott put the Caps ahead with a power play goal in the final minute of the first period. The teams traded goals after that – a Tomas Kopecky goal to tie things in the second period and a Brooks Laich goal in the seventh minute of the third to put the Caps back out in front. But Marcus Johansson was sent off for hooking with 1:50 left in the contest, and with the goalie pulled to create a 6-on-4 situation, Jonathan Toews tied it with 39 seconds left. In overtime the Caps had pressure on the Blackhawks as the clock ticked toward one minute remaining. With Marcus Johansson controlling the puck above the left wing circle, Mike Knuble laid his stick out calling for the puck from in front of goalie Corey Crawford. Johansson laid the puck on Knuble’s tape, and it was Knuble from there. He pulled the puck across the crease with Crawford down and stuffed the puck under his pads amidst a clot of players to give the Caps the 4-3 overtime win.

In Game 9 the Caps headed off to Montreal for a contest that had to have folks thinking about the end of the streak. The Caps were without centers Jason Arnott and Nicklas Backstrom. Defenseman Mike Green was still on the shelf. Defenseman Tom Poti and goalie Semyon Varlamov were also out. But the Caps parlayed a two-goal effort from Marcus Johansson and a 24-save performance from Braden Holtby into a 4-2 win over the similarly decimated-by-injury Canadiens.

There would be no “Game 10” of the streak. The Caps lost at Detroit to the Red Wings, 4-2, on March 16th to end the winning streak at nine. It was, however, the beginning of a mad rush to the end of the year that saw the Caps go 16-3-1 in their last 20 games to finish first overall in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season. The nine-game streak was noteworthy for other things as well, including:

- The Caps were 5-0-0 at home, 4-0-0 on the road
- Eight of the nine games were decided by one goal
- Only once did the Caps score more than four goals in the streak
- Only once did the Caps allow more than two goals in the streak
- Three games were won in overtime; there were three different goal-scorers (Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble)
- Three Caps had two game-winning goals in the streak (Ovechkin, Semin, and Knuble)
- Three Caps had four goals apiece to lead the team (Brooks Laich, Semin, and Ovechkin)
- Seventeen different Caps recorded points, including goaltender Braden Holtby; 11 different Caps had goals
- Ovechkin led all Caps in points (4-8-12)
- The Caps allowed the first goal in seven of the nine games (one of the other two being a Caps shutout)
- The Caps outscored their opponents, 27-14, over the nine-game streak. Six of the 14 goals were allowed in the first period of games. They allowed only two third-period goals in the streak (Florida, Chicago)
- Michal Neuvirth was 4-0-0, 1.83, .938 during the streak; Braden Holtby was 5-0-0, 1.25, .957, with one shutout during the streak
- The Caps won at least one game on every day of the week, and twice on Sunday (twice on Tuesday, too)
- It was the tenth winning streak of at least five games by the Caps since the seven-game streak to end the 2007-2008 season.

In the end, though, it was another case of the Caps perhaps hitting their peak much too early. And with so many one-goal wins coming in that streak, one had to wonder in retrospect if it wasn’t a flukish mirage, an anomaly where all the one-goal margins happen to fall to the good guys. In fact, the Caps would not win another one-goal game in regulation time the rest of the season and would go 4-3 in all one goal decisions over their last 11 games (all the wins coming in extra time and one of the losses coming that way). They would go only 2-3 in one-goal decisions in the playoffs, including a pair of one-goal losses in the second round sweep the Caps suffered at the hands of Tampa Bay.

Like so many things with this franchise over the years, it was one of those things that was nice while it lasted, but it neither lasted long enough, nor did it come at the right time of year. And that is why while it was among the ten top stories of 2011, it was not as big a story as a long winning streak might suggest.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy Holidays, Caps Fans...

Twas the night before Christmas, when all ‘round the rink
Not a creature was stirring, you could hear yourself think.
The stockings were hung by the lockers with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The Cappies were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Stanley Cups danced in their heads.
With Huntsy in warmups, drawing up a new trap,
We’d just settled in for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the ice there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the tunnel I flew like a flash,
Knocked over some sticks and fell with a crash.

The lights in the arena on the new sheet of ice
Gave the lustre of mid-day, it was oh, very nice.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Marcus! Now, Brooksie! now, Nicklas and Hamr!
On, Wardo! On, Schultzie! on, Ovie and Chimmer!
To the top of the glass! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As players that before the wild Hurricanes fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the roof-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the slate
The prancing and pawing of each little skate.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the stairs St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like Don Cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the stairs he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

 ...we'll see you next week.  Happy Holidays, Caps fans.